Almost 110 years after the world’s first full-length feature film, The Story of the Ned Kelly Gang, debuted at the Athenaeum on Melbourne’s Collins Street back in 1906, there are few artistic endeavours that come close to carving such enduring legacies for our greatest stars than the movies, from Marilyn Monroe right up to Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s death by heroin overdose in his New York apartment last year.
So revered was Hoffman’s magnetic performances that Rolling Stone magazine are re-printing their February cover story with the great actor, to mark the release of his final leading role, A Most Wanted Man, this week. Hoffman falls into a sadly crowded category of filmic greats lost too soon, ones that not only will be remembered with great admiration for the canon they leave behind, but also appear posthumously.
“I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work, I want to achieve it through not dying,” Woody Allen.
Rolling Stone reviewer Calvin Wilson said of Hoffman’s performance in A Most Wanted Man that he is, “mesmerizing as a man who desperately wants to do the right thing, but is all too aware of the odds against him.” In truth, Hoffman’s best work was probably his Oscar-wining turn as the author Truman Capote in Bennett Miller’s Capote. His final appearances will be as Plutarch Heavensbee in the two-part young adult dystopian blockbuster Hunger Games: Mockingjay, released later this year and then in 2015.
Woody Allen’s oft-repeated quote, when musing on his vast body of work and ever-increasing age, “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work, I want to achieve it through not dying,” sums up his particular brand of morbidly neurotic wit. The New York auteur’s statement finds its counterbalance in the words of another great filmmaker and comic, Mel Brooks, who said that, “immortality is a by-product of good work.”
“The only greatness for man is immortality”, James Dean.
While both are still with us, it’s a fair bet their work will be remembered long after they’re gone, and that’s certainly true of the original cinematic bad boy James Dean, who agreed that, “the only greatness for man is immortality.” It’s quite stunning to think that both Rebel Without A Cause and Giant were released after his infamous death behind the wheel. Even more incredibly, Dean secured posthumous Oscar nominations for Rebel and also for East of Eden.
Not quite of the same calibre as Dean, but 2015 will also see the release of Fast and Furious, the curtain call for dashing Hollywood action hero Paul Walker, with rev heads the world over mourning his loss following a car accident in LA.
James Gandolfini carved his most memorable role on the small screen with Tony Soprano, but following his death from a heart attack in Rome last year, the charismatic actor appeared in Enough Said, Nicole Holofcener’s affecting rom com about middle-aged divorcees, alongside Veep and Seinfeld star Julie Louis-Dreyfus. He’ll take his final bow in Michaël R. Roskam’s The Drop later this year.
Australia said goodbye to one of its most promising young stars when Heath Ledger tragically died of an overdose of prescription drugs in 2008. His terrifyingly maniacal rendering of the Joker, opposite Christian Bale’s Batman in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, only underlined his incredible ability. A fitting high, it’s a slight shame that Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, released next, wasn’t quite as impressive. As Ledger hadn’t finished filming, Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell stepped in to share the remainder of his character Tony’s screen time.
Perhaps the most surreal posthumous appearance lands later this year with the video-on-demand release of George Sluizer’s thriller Dark Blood, starring River Phoenix a full 21 years after his infamous death on the pavement outside West Hollywood’s Viper Room. Co-starring Jonathan Pryce and Judy Davis, only around two thirds of the film were shot, but they’ve subsequently written around his loss. A rough cut screened at last year’s Berlin International Film Festival. Phoenix is probably best remembered for his role as a narcoleptic rent boy in Gus van Sant’s cult hit My Own Private Idaho, opposite Keanu Reeves and Stand By Me in 1986.
Bruce Lee’s tragic death at only 32 meant that his final appearance in Enter the Dragon was also posthumous, if only by a few weeks. It is heart-breaking that his son Brandon notoriously died on the set of The Crow, a film about a man who rises from the grave one year after his death, when he was bizarrely shot in the abdomen by a gun that was supposed to be empty. Crow’s fiancée Eliza Hutton gave director Alex Proyas her blessing to finish the film using stunt double Chad Stahelski and Brandon’s computer generated face.
Digital trickery was also used to complete the late, great Oliver Reed’s role in Gladiator, when he died unexpectedly at only 61 during a break in filming Ridley Scott’s sword and sandals epic starring Russell Crowe.
Many of The Godfather legend Marlon Brando’s scenes as Superman’s dad Jor-El were sliced from the final cut of 1980’s Superman II when director Richard Donner was unceremoniously dumped and replaced by Richard Lester midway through the shoot. It wasn’t until over two decades later that Brando’s scenes were re-instated in 2006, two years after his death. Some of that archival footage was also used in Bryan Singer’s ill-fated re-boot, Superman Returns also released that same year.
While this roll call of posthumous performances is dominated by male actors, we also doff our cap to singer and actress Aaliyah Dan Haughton who died in a plane crash before the release of her second big screen appearance in the Anne Rice adaptation Queen of the Damned in 2002, with her brother Rashad re-dubbing some of her lines in post-production.